What a summer

I made up my mind when i came back from Turkey in April that i was going to make the most of this summer and not let it ebb away the way most of those before it have done. I set myself to searching online to find out what was happening in London over the next few months, particularly things that were free or cheap.

Many adventures followed – far too numerous to list, but two events, both exhibitions, stand out:

The first featured sea paintings, etchings and sculptures by Maggi Hambling. I hesitated to attend it, unsure of the welcome i would get at the posh private gallery where it was being held, but decided to stick to my promise to myself and not be deflected by nervousness. I’m glad i did. The sculptures (bronze reliefs) i wasn’t keen on, the etchings were nice but forgettable – but the paintings! There were only three but they were spellbinding. It was as though she’d trapped the Sea itself in her whirls of paint. Looking at one of the paintings I noted:

Shades of white, blue and navy – sometimes so dark it almost looks black. No edges. Utterly still and silent yet full of movement and you’d swear you can hear it roar. It makes me feel drenched.

The other exhibition was very different. It featured the work of not one but many artists whose names however are long since lost. They lived in a state which falls within the boundaries of modern Nigeria and were contemporaries of the European Renaissance artists – and every bit as marvellous.

This was the exhibition of sculptures from the Kingdom of Ife.  Held at the British Museum it was visibly playing second fiddle to the exhibition of Renaissance drawings – including some by Leonardo da Vinci – that was showing at the same time. It saddened me that so few of those queuing up to see the sketches of the great Italian Masters would bother to see the works of their African near-contemporaries, but in truth i nearly didn’t go and see them myself. The ticket was bought on a moment’s impulse.

Inside i wrote:

Incredible! Some exhibitions are interesting; this is mesmerising.

About the sculptures themselves i noted:

Each figure is subtly unique, to the extent that you feel they contain real people, present with you in the rooms of the British Museum. And they’re old: some date to the 800s it seems (the Anglo-Saxon period in England).

The one that has made the greatest impact on me so far: a seated figure (one leg crossed) made from copper which has been dated to the 13th Century. Eyes closed, lips slightly parted, as though drifting into sleep. One arm is missing as is the lower half of the other arm, but the round, narrow shoulders are beautiful. Interestingly androgynous: I think it’s a plump, slightly built male but it could be a boyish small-breasted girl. Revered as a fertility symbol it seems. Naturalism is exquisite: tiny folds of fat above the hips.

Other figures are more stylised/monstrous: one from the 14th Century has bulging eyes, tiny clenched fists & an elongated torso.

They still haunt me those long-dead Africans immortalised, albeit anonymously, in copper. It haunts me too how close i came to not going. Even once i’d bought the ticket i wasn’t sure – would it just be an endless array of near-identical, earnestly exhibited antiquities? Then on the day itself i had transport problems and almost turned around and went home.

Not everything i’ve been to this summer has been that good; indeed some of the events have fallen rather flat. But those moments of wonder make the rest of it worthwhile. How glad i am that i stuck to my guns and made the effort to do, see, hear and go this year.

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Trip 2010: Greece part 2 – Xanthi & Alexandroupoli

Monday 12 April

Woke up cold despite the extra blanket I’d put onto the bed and hungry. Again i would need to seek out breakfast for myself; unlike in Turkey it doesn’t seem to be routinely provided in Greek hotels. I could hear the sounds of city life from outside the window although when I checked my iPhone it wasn’t yet eight. Downstairs the relatively friendly lady who’d checked me in the night before was gone and had been replaced by a relatively unfriendly man. I think this is the man I’d spoken to on the phone from Istanbul; he has the knack of sounding offended by anything you ask of him.

“Do you speak English?”

[Offended tone] “Yes, a bit.”

“Is it possible to get a map of Xanthi?”

[Offended tone] “Yes, here.”

And so on.

A short walk from the hotel i found a nice cafe: chic yet comfortable and somehow very ‘continental’. They sold beautiful fruit tarts and… filter coffee! I was also surprised to discover the assistant spoke some English. Mind you, I notice the Greeks use English quite a bit in advertising: the babywear shop across the road has a sign on the door saying “HOME” for instance – although I suppose it could be a Greek word.

Looking out of the window as i breakfasted i noticed the many Muslims in the town. They’re mostly Turkish-speaking and identify as ethnic Turks, it seems, although some Muslims in this area speak Bulgarian (and are known as Pomaks). I say ‘it seems’ because the Muslims of Xanthi rarely speak any minority language loud enough for it to be heard; it’s only when you’re standing close to people that you hear snatches of conversations in Turkish. The women dress conservatively in headscarves and long coats, which are almost all black. One younger woman had opted for a slightly different style: super-elaborate headscarf plus the slinkiest skirt I’ve seen since I arrived in Greece. It just about reached her knees. Ah well, at least it was black. The men, on the other hand, dress in ordinary western fashion and are indistinguishable from the Greeks – at least to my untrained eye. Greek women, by the way, dress like women in any other part of Europe; the days of dark dresses for mature ladies and conservative hemlines all round are long since gone if the towns i visited are anything to go by.

Xanthi rooftops

After breakfast i had a good wander round the Old Town, which is wonderfully pretty. I was particularly taken with the doors of the houses: each seemed to be unique. It’s bizarre that I only saw two other tourists. None of the buildings are actually that old though – the ones I saw all dated from the mid-19th Century or a few decades later; yet sadly many of them are in a poor state of repair. Given their touristic value this struck me as odd. Despite an abundance of dark red plaques affixed to the walls, providing information in Greek and English, none of the buildings appeared to be open to the public either.

An old Muslim lady stopped me as i was sight-seeing (aka ‘getting lost’) and began asking me urgent questions about something. Of course I had no idea what that something was – although, bizarrely, the one word i could identify was ‘Papas’, which i believe is Greek for ‘Pope’! Eventually I got her to understand that I was foreign. She laughed and walked off.

Greek flag in old Xanthi

Around lunchtime i found that much longed for oasis… a bookshop selling books in English (albeit only a few) and with a helpful assistant to boot. I bought a book called Tormented by History* in which a pair of Turkish and a Greek historians compare the development of their respective nationalisms and a novel by a Greek writer called Vangelis Hatziyanndis**. It’s about a beekeeper’s son (of all things!) and won a Greek literary prize for best first novel in 2001. This turned out to be a great read, although its treatment of paedophilia was problematic to say the least.

In addition, I bought a map of Thrace. It covers both the Greek and Turkish portions. The Turkish place names are given according to their normal Turkish spelling but for many of them a Greek language name is also shown or/and a transliteration of the Greek pronunciation of the Turkish name into the Latin script – for example Çerkezköy is rendered ‘Tserkezkioe’. Who is this for? If it’s to help Greeks pronounce the Turkish name then why isn’t it written in the Greek alphabet?

The bookshop had a cafe upstairs, but it was deserted. The helpful shop assistant had followed me up however so i felt obliged to order some tea. It was strange sitting there all by myself but not unpleasant. What was unpleasant was the sofa on which i was sat; from a distance it looked like leather but it was actually made from plastic – white plastic. Plastic is like concrete: it quickly starts to look dirty as it wears; and these sofas are no exception. Alas, modernity!

A door in Xanthi

Xanthi door

Xanthi door

In the afternoon i did some shopping (as usual I had been overoptimistic about laundry facilities and was running out of clothes) and some more sight-seeing. The friendly lady who served me in the clothes shop had spent part of her childhood in Australia and was now regretting her decision to return to Greece, although she told me she preferred Xanthi to Athens where she’d been born. She advised me to go to the top of the hill above the Old Town if possible for a panoramic view of the town, which i did (it was a nice view and i saw a tortoise). I also fed some hungry cats; the moggies of Istanbul live lives of plenty compared to the scrawny creatures i encountered in Greece.

Tortoise near Xanthi

Back in the town, this time the newer section, i encountered the spectacle of two “American Indian musicians”, sporting the kind of costumes (feathered headdresses, etc) that you normally only see in movies and old sepia photographs. Amerindian these men may well have been (though not necessarily from the US), but musicians they most definitely were not. The music was ‘pre-recorded; occasionally they would inject a note from a wooden flute or bang a drum but it was almost at random. Behind them were hung two huge posters. One showed Jesus ascending to Heaven, the other two enormous bunny rabbits (each about three times as big as Jesus).

Eventually, tired out by my exertions and curious to know if i had any emails i took myself off to an internet cafe i’d seen opposite the bookstore i’d visited earlier. This was in fact the first internet cafe i’ve ever visited in my life. It was half full, mostly of teenage boys playing World of Warcraft and the like (with intense concentration – there was no conversation), and strangely dark. I wrote the first two instalments of my Trip 2010 saga there and savoured the feeling of connectivity, this being my first chance to use the internet since arriving in Greece – free internet access doesn’t seem to be a part of Greek hotel culture any more than breakfast is. An incidental discovery: Greek keyboards are even harder to get used to than Turkish ones!

And that, apart from another trip to the nice cafe for cake and tea, concluded my day in Xanthi.

Tuesday 13 April

Woke at eight – so much for my plan to out of the hotel by then. After repacking my rucksack (for some reason this gets harder, not easier, as a trip progresses) I went down to pay the bill. The evening before I’d been assured I could pay by card but the antiquated PIN terminal wouldn’t work; how can one of these already be antiquated? Chip & Pin has only been around for a few years. Ended up settling by cash and then took a taxi to the train station, where I bought my ticket to Alexandroupoli and discovered I had a two hour wait for the train.

It occurred to me that it might be possible to buy the ticket for the night train from Alexandroupoli to Istanbul at this station too. No harm in asking anyway. After a conversation with two members of staff, one of whom spoke quite good English, it transpired this was indeed possible. Only problem: payment is only possible by cash. At first I despaired as I’d handed over most of my cash at the hotel but then – miracle! – I found an extra 40 euros in one of my pockets. I felt relieved to have the ticket. Given how few tickets were left when I went with B to buy the ticket from Istanbul to Thessaloniki one day before travelling, it seemed entirely possible that there would be no tickets left when I got to Alexandroupoli. I was also given a piece of information which was to dominate my stay in the town: i was to go to the “Old Station” for the night train, and not the new one which all the other trains go to. The lady repeated this information several times.

Xanthi Railway Station

The train was like the one i’d travelled on from Thessaloniki but thankfully the journey was shorter. Indeed we only seemed to pass through one town of any size and this was Komotini, notable for the fact that it’s the only town in Greece where Turks form a majority of the population (although only just). I’ve read that Turkish communities in Greece tend if anything to be more conservative than those in Turkey; ironically, by remaining in Greece, they avoided the secularisation of the Turkish republic. As we drew into Komotini a lady in a seat not far from mine stood up and donned a long black coat and headscarf before disembarking. I wondered whether she’d taken the coat and headscarf off to avoid problems on the train or was putting them on to avoid problems in the town.

Soon i was in Alexandroupoli, which initially looked quite promising, not least because I could see the sea as the train drew in. I quickly realised my mistake however: this is one of those places which somehow lack a soul. It’s very short of decent cafes too, although I found one eventually called Elemento 41, situated, as these places often are, next to a bookshop (which alas had scarcely any English language books). After struggling for about a quarter of an hour to decipher the Greek characters on the menu i selected one of a handful of dishes on offer whose name was given in English: a Greco-Burger! I also drank lots of tea, as it turned out they had real Japanese sencha on offer (!) and not made from bags either – no, this was loose tea in a pot, served with complimentary biscuits and sweets. The complimentary biscuits and sweets were a feature of Greek cafes in general and one i really liked. You never knew what they’d give you but it was always good.

Apart from cafes just about everything in this town seems to shut at 3 pm at the latest so I’d missed the museums and ended up spending the afternoon wandering about at random. One of the things i noticed was the curious relationship the town has with the nearby Greco-Turkish border: the town is as Greek as Greek can be and there’s much less evidence of the Thracian Turkish minority; yet here for the first time i saw road signs pointing out how close Turkey is – just 44 km (27 miles) away. I never saw any soldiers but i did see photographic displays featuring images of the military in the windows of shops. It was quite odd.

The other thing i noticed was how beautiful the dogs were. There were lots down by the seafront. I couldn’t work out whether they were strays or just pets out for a wander (apart from the few who were wearing collars). Many of them appeared to have some Labrador or Golden Retriever ancestry. Thankfully, neither the Greeks nor the Turks have yet been afflicted by leash-mania and consequently their dogs are calm and self-contained, just as i remember dogs being in my childhood, and not neurotic or aggressive like so many dogs in Britain are these days.

For a while I sat on a wall near the sea reading my Greek novel (the only one it appears i’m going to be able to buy!), but the temperature started to drop and the seafront is not actually very pretty in Alexandroupoli: the water looks dirty and oddly dark. In the end I gave up and returned to my hotel.

Photos of soldiers in Alexandroupoli

Wednesday 14 April

Woke to the sound of drizzle. I made my way into town to look for something to eat, eventually (inevitably?) settling for coffee and and a piece of complimentary cake at Elemento 41. The search for breakfast was nothing in comparison to the quest for the Old Railway Station however. No-one seemed to be able to tell me where this was; when i did get directions they were invariably wrong. Even the stationmaster at the New Station couldn’t help me: he directed me to a grey building further along the track which turned out to be a row of shops! At one point I was stopped by a police car; they were obviously suspicious of the way i was wandering along the road, examining every yard and driveway for signs that a railway station that might be hidden away inside.

The policemen were actually very nice when they realised i was merely lost, but Alexandroupoli isn’t the friendliest place I’ve ever been to in my life and the endless grid pattern of the streets gives it a dreary feel which doesn’t help matters. I’ve also noticed that although there are even more English language signs here than in Xanthi, fewer people speak English (the Greek paradox?).

Music book at Alexandroupoli Ethnological Museum

Giving up (temporarily) the search for the Old Station, i decided to check out the town’s museums before they closed. I’d read about two but could only find one in the end: the Ethnological Museum, which collects together household items typical of the traditional culture of the region – a culture which seems to have survived into the first half of the Twentieth Century, but is now completely gone as far as i could see. There were women’s costumes featuring leaf patterns, aprons and coin decorations, and lots of different kinds of headgear. The men’s costumes were less spectacular apart from the footwear: clogs/slippers with great ‘bobbles’ at the end. Some of the costumes were not in fact Thracian but Cappadocian or Pontic, reflecting the influx of refugees in 1923. Other exhibits included tools used for farming and a music book, featuring a kind of notation i’d never seen before. Not many people seem to come to the museum; the caretaker had to switch the lights on for me.

Alexandroupoli's old railway station

Later that day the hotel manager (a lovely man who spoke very good English) gave me directions which enabled me to (finally!) find the old railway station***. The sense of relief! I really was starting to wonder if i’d ever see the place. It was a grey building (which explains the stationmaster’s mistake) but much further along the main road than any of the buildings people had directed me to. I celebrated with a Nutella-laden crepe pancake (Is there anywhere in the world Nutella has yet to reach!? Is there anywhere which has resisted it?) and some ariani, Greek ayran.

Afterwards it was just a matter of killing time until midnight (i tried to sleep but it was hopeless). Then i got my stuff together and walked along the dark street to the station – an eerie experience yet i felt completely safe. I found it deserted apart from a stationmaster, tucked away in his office, and an arthritic old dog trying to sleep on the platform. The dog woke up when i arrived and i fed him some treats, wondering if i was to be the only person to board the train and worrying vaguely that it might not stop. After about twenty minutes one other passenger arrived. He was followed, quite a bit later, by a whole group of people who seemed to be policemen and railway officials. At around 1 am (late as usual!) the train pulled in and we were off. Back to Turkey!

Signpost to Turkey in Alexandroupoli

* Tormented by History: Nationalism in Greece and Turkey; ISBN: 978-1-85065-899-3; Uzut Özkırımlı & Spyros A. Sofos; pub. Hurst & Co (London, 2008)
**Four Walls; ISBN: 978-0-7145-3122-9; Vangelis Hatziyannidis; pub. Marion Boyars (2006)
*** The easiest way to find the “Old Railway Station” is to proceed along Dimokratias Avenue (Leoforos Dimokratias/ΛΕΩΦΟΡΟΣ ΔΗΜΟΚΡΑΤΙΑΣ) eastwards from the centre of the town. You cross the railway line (it will henceforth be to your right although you quickly lose sight of it behind the shops which line the road) and continue on (remaining on the right side of the road) for about 300 metres till, just after a branch of Alpha Bank, you see a boat shop on the opposite side of the road. You should now see a sign (on your side of the road) for the railway station which is a grey building (see photo above) and is set back from the road down a short drive. These directions should get you there – at least as long as the Alpha Bank branch and boat shop stay open!

Last year’s trip to Turkey

I’m off to Turkey again next week. When i went last year for the first time i hadn’t yet started this blog, but i did record my impressions in a series of emails to friends. I thought i’d edit them a bit and present them here, so people can see what a wonderful time i had. Hopefully, it will be just as good this year – but without the face masks!

The first email was sent on the evening of Saturday 9 May, the day after my arrival:

I arrived as per schedule yesterday and, along with all my fellow travellers, was met by face masks and thermal scanners at Istanbul airport. I made my way to my hotel via the metro and tram systems, dodging “helpful” locals who wanted me to know that i’d much prefer their establishment. Exhausted by this accomplishment i then collapsed on my bed (after sending the obligatory “hello, i’ve survived” text to friends and family, those with mobiles anyway).

Today i journeyed over to the Golden Horn to buy my digital map and then took the ferry over to Üsküdar, changing continents as i did so! I followed instructions passed on to me by an Iranian-American doctor i’ve been chatting to on Twitter and found my way to a little artsy café, tucked away on a back street in an area called Kuzguncuk. It was only a 15 minute walk from the ferry terminal but there wasn’t a tourist to be seen. The food was great but even better was not being hassled or scammed, which is what happens in the cafés round here in Sultanahmet (the historic and therefore the tourist quarter).

I came back via Topkapı Park where i befriended a cat which was being hassled by a Turkish toddler. It was a poor skinny little mite and i would have liked to have fed it but i didn’t have any meat or cheese on me. One of the things i don’t like about Istanbul is the treatment of animals. I’ve seen three or four half starved stray dogs since i got here, standing around looking like they don’t know what they’re doing in the world. The stray cats look a bit healthier and are treated with a bit more kindness but not with much more understanding. To be fair though, this is the first predominately Muslim country where i’ve seen people with pet dogs and those animals do look well cared for as do the much more commonly seen pet cats.

Istanbul itself is a stunningly beautiful city. At times you feel like you’ve wandered onto a film set, it’s just too exotic and spectacular. Apart from the mosques with their minarets there are the rows of beautiful old houses, typically painted shades of ochre, the surprisingly numerous parks and the Bosphorus which is a strange blend of sea and river (i can see it from where i’m sitting in the hotel). Of course, there are slums too, but even those look better in the sunshine.

The people themselves are a strange blend of traditional and modern. It’s most noticeable in the women. You see girls that could be from London or New York and others that are are scarfed and clad in long coats. Obviously you can see the same dichotomy in the UK but those are mostly second generation immigrants. On the surface, at least, everyone seems to coexist happily enough.

Tomorrow i will probably explore the European side of Istanbul. If i can overcome my horror of crowds i might even visit one of the famous sights such as the Blue Mosque or the Topkapı Museum. And then on Monday i’m hoping to either go on the Bosphorus cruise or go on a cruise to the islands.

Tuesday morning of course i move on to Fethiye and the Lycian Way…

It’s a shame there wasn’t able to find time to write another email during my time in Istanbul because on this first day i was really just adjusting to the shock of being in a new city, a new country; but after that i was too busy exploring. Reconstructing the next few days from memory, two places stand out: the Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. I stood for the best part of twenty minutes leaning on a great stone wall on the upper level of the Haghia Sophia. It had been worn smooth, that wall; and my mind filled with awe at the thought of the number of people that would have taken – thousands of them. I felt surrounded by ghosts. Mind you, i also felt surrounded by cameras: all around me i could hear and see their flashes going off, as people photographed the famous Byzantine mosaics.

Sultanahmet, Istanbul - 2009 May 9

It was quieter in the Blue Mosque (thankfully). I remember being captivated by the intricate patterns of the decorations and pleased to find i could read some of the Arabic inscriptions. Even more than the Haghia Sophia the mosque radiated tranquillity and serenity. Mind you, unlike the Haghia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is still a place of worship – still alive, if you like. Coming out, i was depressed at how few people made a donation to the man on the door; and even more depressed to hear a group of blue-rinsed American women discussing “how many mosques” it’s necessary to see in Istanbul before you can say that you’ve “done them”.

A lane in Kuzguncuk - 2009 April 9

I had no intention of trying to ‘do the mosques’ or any other kind of building. With only one full day left in Istanbul i didn’t want to spend my time indoors. Instead i went on a boat trip along the Bosphorus which turned out to be a magical (if rather windy) experience. At at the far end we disembarked and followed a (not very well marked out) path to the ruins of a castle , accompanied by a friendly local dog.

Dolmabahce Palace seen from the Bosphorus - 2009 May

The next day i wandered around the modern centre of Istanbul, Beyoğlu (which i preferred to Sultanahmet), before heading off to the airport. There i sat all night in the waiting area (gazed at with suspicion by a group of Turkish pilgrims) so that i wouldn’t miss my onward flight to Dalaman Airport. I was off to the south and the next part of my trip: a walk along part of the famous Lycian Way. A few days later (15 May 2009), i sent the following update:

I am now in a backpackers’ hostel called George House in Faralya, a small village one day’s walk into the Lycian Way. I originally planned to stay here for no more than two nights but it’s such a wonderful place i have decided to stay one extra day.

That’s not the only reason actually: the fact is the Lycian Way is hard going! Most of the paths are scree rather than mud based, which means that the ground often slips under your feet. Moreover, the paths are rarely level: you are either being taken high into the mountains (in the morning) or back down towards sea-level (in the afternoon). Think Mt Snowdon – and this is the ‘easy bit’! Add to that the weight of the pack (and i kept mine relatively light) and the heat of the sun and you soon start to feel exhausted. Spectacular scenery though and at one point i came across a herd of horses wandering around by themselves in a copse.

Back to the hostel: what makes it so special? Well, it’s a simple place but the owners are very friendly and hospitable, providing free Turkish tea all day long, delicious breakfasts and evening meals and on one occasion spontaneously producing a cake that one of the ladies in the family had baked. The hostel is perched up high on a cliff above a tiny strip of land called the Butterfly Valley. You feel miles above the world here. There’s a lovely swimming pool (which hardly anyone but me seems to use) and breathtaking views of the sheer cliffs on the other side of the valley. There is a path from the hostel down to the beach but it’s extremely steep and at one point you have to use ropes to lower yourself down. As a result i confess i’ve just not bothered. The best thing about the hostel though is it’s one of those places where people actually talk to one another – not just in the sense of chitchat but also conversations of depth about issues such as art, politics, religion, literature, philosophy… you name it!

Amongst the other guests at the moment there’s a deeply thoughtful young Turkish man, an Argentine-Canadian engineer (and would-be photojournalist) and a very eccentric Czech architect/photographer, who is obsessed with European culture and the dangers of Islam. A young German couple have just left: they were philosophy graduates and very serious. Up until yesterday we also had a Taiwanese teenager touring Turkey by himself. He was a quirky boy, in many ways older than his years, and his attempts to learn Turkish from the Turkish man via his heavily accented Chinese English were quite comical.

Finally, we have Brian, an Australian in his 50s of ‘independent means’. He lives in Turkey and is trying to develop new walking paths in this area. Brian is a real character: dramatic and intelligent, gossipy and mysterious, industrious and laid back. We discussed Kate Clow, the creator of the Lycian Way. He has a number of criticisms to make of her, the most serious being that she mapped much of the trail along routes that had been identified as sites for potential new roads. As these roads are built the picturesque goat tracks are replaced with wider bulldozed lanes and then, inevitably, asphalt roads. This explains why to my surprise the first half of the goat track i followed on Wednesday showed up on the digital map that my GPS uses: the map makers include planned roads as well as ones already built. Bryan feels that the Lycian Way is doomed as a long distance path for this reason, but he also thinks there are many other tracks which could be joined together as walks, tracks which do not lie on routes intended to be converted into roads and which should therefore remain inviolate for much longer.

I may go for a (backpackless!) walk today from here to Kabak, the next place along the Way and then come back here tonight. Then i can skip the Kabak leg of the trail tomorrow and move straight on to the next leg. There are regular dolmuşes (minibuses) so getting to Kabak shouldn’t be a problem. Alternatively i may just swim in the pool and sit around reading my book, a novel by a Turkish writer called O.Z. Livaneli called ‘Bliss’. I bought it in İstanbul, despite strong resolutions not to burden myself with anything more to carry. Well, what do you expect me to do when i find myself in a street with four or five bookshops!? I don’t regret it in any case as it’s turned out to be a great read. I will probably leave it here when i finish it to supplement the meagre selection of English language books in the hostel library. Either the Germans are far more generous in donating books or the English language books are more popular and so get taken more often.

In fact, far from going on a ‘backpackless’ day walk to Kabak so that i could skip it, i went on as far as Kabak and then no further. The heat was overpowering and the next section of the path sounded rather uninspiring; the real reason i went no further though was because i’d fallen in love with George House and wanted to return.

About half way between Faralya and Kabak

George House

Horse in a copse on the way to Faralya (from Ovacık)

Tree with a Lycian Way waymark

Yellow and gold wildflowers near Faralya

Purple wildflowers

The sea was blue!

On Tuesday 19 May i emailed my friends:

I’m back in George House in Faralya after 3 nights in Kabak where i investigated the coastal trail and swam in a deserted crystal clear cove (giant flat boulders beneath turquoise seas). In many ways though the best bit was the walk to and from Kabak. The path climbs up and then follows a ridge most of the way before descending at the other end. The profusion of different wild flowers up there is startling and there are turtles/tortoises. We met one during our walk back this morning and he rather reluctantly condescended to be photographed before lumbering off into the undergrowth. Kabak itself is also beautiful. The hostel where i stayed (The Olive Garden) is perched up high above the bay and the view is glorious, particularly first thing in the morning.

Tomorrow i will travel to Kaş (via Fethiye). I’ve got two days there before i have to travel back to Fethiye and then (alas!) back home.

My trip to Kaş, a pretty town on the south coast, turned out to be quite an experience in itself, as i wrote after my arrival:

Arrived in Kaş yesterday afternoon after an unexpectedly wonderful day – despite intermittent heavy rain. After spending my final few hours at George House discussing languages, mapping and the journey of life with Brian the Australian and Öner the Turk i reluctantly took my leave and headed up to the main road to wait for the dolmuş to Fethiye.

While i was waiting a Turkish family (man, woman, little girl) came past in their car and stopped to ask about the route to Butterfly Valley. They asked me where i was headed and offered me a lift. We passed the journey with the parents demonstrating how much English their 3 year old daughter already knew before she eventually fell asleep. When we got to Fethiye they commented that they might as well carry on since it was still raining and in the end they took me all the way to Kaş (stopping at places like Patara Beach on the way), where they insisted on buying me dinner. Now that’s what i call hospitality! They were very interesting people too, not least because Sylvia, the wife, is a member of the Armenian minority. We had some very interesting discussions about the way Turkey is headed and also about Turkish films and literature; they were very pleased that i knew anything about these things as it’s not their usual experience of foreign tourists.

Anyway, i’ve signed up for a boat tour today and then i want to go back to the bookshop i found yesterday down a little side street. I bought a Turkish novel in translation (albeit not a very good translation) and i’d like to buy some more. I won’t be doing any more trekking now so the weight of the books isn’t a problem.

I note that by this point i was signing myself off ‘the Turkish Adventurer’! The boat trip was more interesting than i expected it to be, in large part because of the conversations i mention below:

I’m back at the hotel now following my boat trip round Kekova island: interesting, but more for the conversations than the ruins. Somehow, outside of Time Team, remains of ancient buildings soon start to blur into one another: this is a Lycian wall because their stone architecture was influenced by the techniques they used to carve wood; whereas this one is Roman because the wall is built from stone blocks and this one is Byzantine because it’s built from bricks. By the time we arrived at the Ottoman Era i was lost and, if i’m honest, bored.

We were meant to be able to swim as well but the relatively cool weather and rain put everyone off except one Turkish couple. Mind you, apart from me, a Turkish family (the afore-mentioned couple plus their young son & a set of grandparents) and a French-Canadian couple the other people on the trip were all elderly Germans, members of a watercolour club. Once we got out of the harbour they got out their painting kits and began working in earnest. No conversation was possible.

Conversation was possible however with the French-Canadian couple, Alain and Marie. They were lovely people, retired teachers who now enjoy travelling the world. We talked about how they feel about being Canadian: Marie said that in Canada she identifies herself as Quebecois, not French-Canadian but is nevertheless not a Quebec Nationalist. When she travels abroad she does identify as French-Canadian, largely because she doesn’t think many people would know what Quebecois means, but also because she is proud of the positive reputation that Canada has: liberal, tolerant, inclusive.

I also had some great conversations with Dilek, our guide, a funkily fashionable girl: purple cargo pants, pink nail polish, long henna tinted locks. She lived in London for 5 years and misses it. People complain about London when they live there, she says, but it has something distinctive and eclectic about it which you find yourself craving when you leave. I said she’s probably right but i still want to leave!

We also talked about Turkish attitudes to travel and cultural diversity. She confirmed what i’d read – that it’s expensive for Turkish people to travel abroad: passports are expensive and they have to pay a tax to leave Turkey on top of the expense of the visa for the destination country. And that’s assuming they can get the visa. At least three separate people have told me they’ve been refused visas for Britain and these are educated people looking to visit as tourists, not would-be dole artists.

She said that the problem goes deeper than that however: the intense propagation of Turkish national identity has tended to make people both inward-looking and wary of diverging from the norm in any way. Some people actually take a pride in the fact that they have no desire to travel outside Turkey. She advised me to visit İzmir, which she says is the most modern and forward-looking city in Turkey, much more so than İstanbul. Mind you, she does come from İzmir…

After more conversation about Turkish novels in translation, the pros and cons of commuting and her forthcoming 3 month trip to Guatemala to learn Spanish we returned to Kaş and the hotel. Then i set off to re-find the bookshop i’d discovered the previous day. This was easier said than done. For a small town Kaş has a lot of nooks and crannies. Eventually i did find the shop and bought two more Turkish novels in translation – and was rewarded by a joyful smile from the owner. I don’t think she sells a lot of those books.

Tomorrow, as i think i’ve already said, i have to return to Fethiye. I can’t believe that will be my last day! Tonight though i am going to pretend i’m staying here forever. And, more immediately, eat the dessert the waiter has just brought me.

That was the last email i wrote during my trip. The next day i took a (very comfortable) bus back to Fethiye, which i realised almost instantaneously was not a place i wanted to spend any time in. After lunch, i caught a bus to Dalaman Airport, which was even less inviting, and ended up travelling to Istanbul a day early after changing my ticket. I spent the night in the airport. My final memories of Turkey are of wandering aimlessly about the stacks of Turkish Delight piled high for tourists seeking last minute presents. No matter, it was a great holiday. Here’s hoping this year’s will be just as good. I leave you with this picture of Ollie, Turkey’s greatest dog and a resident of the Olive Garden guesthouse in Kabak:

Ollie, possibly the friendliest dog in Turkey


We were a family of cagoules

“We were a family of umbrellas…”

The first line from a poem called Opened by Mario Petrucci, from his wonderful collection Flowers of Sulphur*. The poem is about a funeral but for some reason this sent my mind off in a completely different direction: to days out at the seaside – Rhyl or Prestatyn – as a child. Whatever the weather when we left home, whatever the weather when we arrived at the coast, you could almost guarantee that at some point during the day it would turn, and we would have to seek refuge from the inevitable wind and rain.

You would find us crouched beneath the sea wall, invisible beneath our cagoules. My dad would be pouring milky coffee from his flask (nobody was allowed to handle the thermos except him) and my mum would be doling out butties – cheese or jam or fish paste. These would quickly acquire a coating of fine sand but that didn’t stop us eating them. In fact, the quicker you ate them the better as Sally would have them off you in a second if you put them down. She would also have your Penguin biscuit**, although you’d get in trouble if she did because dogs and chocolate don’t go. Still we’d hesitate when it came to take it, trying to decide which colour wrapper to select. This was despite the fact that we knew full well that the biscuits inside were all exactly the same. Nevertheless: Red? Blue? Green?

Sally, being a dog, was the only one of us who didn’t have a cagoule, so my dad used to open up his and wrap it around both of them. For the rest of the family this was an impossibility as we had those old-style cagoules*** you have to put on over your head like a smock. No breathable linings in those days: you got wet from the rain or wet from your sweat. Your choice.

This is how I always picture us on those family days out: a tribe of blue and red plastic ghosts. This is the image i somehow associated with the line from Mario Petrucci’s poem (have i mentioned how good it is?). The sunshine – when we had any, the sea and the sand are much more vaguely remembered. But this is not, I think, down to negativity on my part. No, I cherish that image of us huddled together in our cagoules. It is the very essence of family.

Of course, it was also the performance of family – because we were in public after all, even if there were only seagulls to view us; and so in some ways it was as much about the family we wanted to be as the family we were. But perhaps that’s also part of what a family is in any case? Aspirations and memories and food and shelter.

* ISBN: 978-1904634379, published by Enitharmon Press. See here for a review.
** Ignore the photo. It shows the modern day wrapper. Google couldn’t locate any pictures of the coloured tin-foil packaging the biscuits came in during the 70s. You will have to use your imagination/consult your memory.
***See the section on the roll-up-able cagoule on Wikipedia’s page about cagoules. I don’t remember ours being roll-up-able though.

What to do…?

There are so many things that i would like to do; and I would do them, I tell myself – if only i could find a way to do without sleep and/or win the National Lottery. It seems to me that with each year that goes by i have less free time, and often the free time i do have isn’t really free. It’s packed with ‘things that need doing’ and tinged with guilt because something somewhere is always waiting to be done or else someone somewhere is always waiting for me to get in touch with them. Now i know that there are many, many people in this world who are worse off than me but, nevertheless, this is frustrating.

Of course, work is the main culprit. I could write at tedious length about the way that work tends to eat more and more deeply into your life the longer you pursue a career, however i’ll spare you! I don’t think it’s just that in any case. Part of the problem, in my opinion, stems from an increasing realisation of your own limits. Early on in life it still seems entirely possible that you can learn each and every language that you might want to speak; visit each and every country in the world; read each and every book that interests you.

Gradually, that optimism fades. You become aware of time ticking away, notice the way that it seems to be forever speeding up, and begin to grasp that you do not in fact have an infinitude of possibilities. This process begins while you are still a child on the day that you comprehend that you won’t ever be an astronaut or a professional footballer. You surrender your impossible dreams but still, at this point, retain your great hopes.

Bit by bit the erosion of confidence proceeds. You discover the tyranny of money. Hopes follow dreams into the sea of limitations and constraints, careers and bills; and so it goes on. Look around you: how many people are there camped out on a last little island of ‘next year’s holiday’, ‘a new car’, ‘paying off the mortgage’ – or just ‘having enough for this week’s groceries’?

I daresay it’s my colleague’s recent death which has put me in this frame of mind but i’m very aware of how marginalised my inner life has become. Struggling, in a state of exhaustion, to read a book on the train home does not constitute having time to think. Similarly, my tired tramp along the road from the office to the railway station does not qualify as ‘a walk’.

What to do…? Some things seem obvious: time spent pursuing other people’s routes to happiness, when these are not also your own, is wasted. Yet, this is too pat. We have obligations to our friends and families. Our happiness, such as it is, stems at least partly from the time and effort those people have invested in us. We have obligations to the world as a whole for that matter. Likewise, it’s all well and good pontificating about not being in thrall to material things; but material things – books are also material things for instance – form an important part of what a truly happy life means to most of us.

I’m never going to be able to do without sleep and i’m never going to win the National Lottery. Really, what to do?

A boat without the sea, a book without footnotes

How can anyone not love footnotes? A book without them is like a boat without the sea, or like the sea shore without rock pools. I love the way that the text flows on relentlessly above, while down below there are little pools of facts, translations and references. I have happy memories of books in which the footnotes took up as much space on the page as did the main narrative or argument; and even happier ones of books in which quotations in the original Greek or Latin – or even Arabic – are included for our enlightenment. And i don’t read any of those languages.

Endnotes are an acceptable alternative if they occur at the end of chapters, but not if they’re chucked to the back of the book – and definitely not if, as in many such books, they’re so poorly labelled that it takes a near superhuman effort to find the note you’re looking for. Often it’s a struggle to even identify the chapter.

Whether you opt for footnotes or endnotes let them be real notes – not just dry lists of titles, authors and dates. Avoid ibid., especially in excess: it turns a forest into a desert. Include references to obscure books, always cite foreign literature under the original title and if necessary reference your references. If you are still unsure how to proceed, i suggest “The Vampire”* by Montague Summers. Some of my favourite endnotes** from this book include:

6 The night-fiend idlu lilî is the male counterpart of the Night-wraith, ardat lilî. Idlu is the word used for a grown man of full strength

48 This belief seems mainly confined to Elis. Curtius Waschmutt, Das alte Griechenland im Neuen, p 117.

55 I have used the “Nouvelle édition revûe, corigée and*** augmentée par l’Auteur.” 2 vols., Paris, Chez Debure l’aîné, 1751.

13 About £20

68 Occasionally attributed to G. W. M. Reynolds, who, however, more than once denied the authorship.

1 Πορευεσθε άπ’έμου, κατηραμέυοι, είς τό πυρ τό αίώυιον τό ήτοιμασμέυον τψ διαβόλψ καί τοις άγγέλοις αύτου****. Discredite a me maledicti in ignem aeternum, qui paratus est diabolo, et angelis eius.

How could you not love endnotes like these? Of course it’d be even better if they were footnotes…

* The most wonderful book on vampires imaginable (ISBN 1-85958-073-4, Senate).
* *Taken from different chapters of the book; hence the jumbled numbering.
*** This ‘and’ is in the original!
****The ‘Greek’ text is probably gibberish as i had to recreate it using the Greek alphabet symbols in Microsoft Word. Some of the letters weren’t easy for a non-Greek speaker to distinguish.

— For ‘B’ —